Interview: Marianne Schnall

Marianne Schnall is a powerhouse: author, public speaker, activist, entrepreneur. Beyoncé recommended her latest book in GARAGE N°10; we discuss its themes within the context of today's political and social landscapes.

April 17, 2016 - Lewis Firth


Praise social media: feminism has been energized. Within the last five-to-ten years digital spheres have facilitated discourse and activism on gender equality unfathomably. Advances forward seem quick, although the fight is still rather spirited and present.

Schnall is a veteran feminist. Girls, ladies, she’s had your back, on the frontline, fighting against patriarchal systems and gender conditioning way before social media boomed and blasted onto mobiles and desktop screens.

In 1995, when the internet was still an infant, feminist.com was born — a creation between Schnall and close friends. Two decades later and it now acts as a hub, a platform, an outlet where like-minded progressives can educate, discuss and take action. Over the years, public figures and fellow freedom fighters such as Meryl Streep, Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou (and many, many more) have all been interviewed by the author. Some notions were collated into her 2013 publication, What Will It Take To Make A Woman President? And Beyoncé recommended the read in GARAGE’s N°10.

“I would love for my younger fans to read What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? by Marianne Schnall,” Beyonce said. “It’s a collection of interviews and essays by great women, including Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, and Melissa Etheridge. They will inspire you to become a better leader.”

Three years since its release the book is still demonstrably relevant. Of course it is! How can it not? Women of all colours and creeds are still combating social, political and economic imbalances. But recent adaptions are the underlying connection to Schnall’s notions: Hillary Clinton is the current frontrunner in the Democratic Race for Nomination; Taiwan have just elected their first female president; Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, appointed an ethnically diverse cabinet with a 50/50 gender ratio; and Star Wars casted a female as their lead in its reboot. Things are changing. Don’t forget: they’re pockets of progress. Practices have yet to disseminate and be embraced comprehensively, which is why Schnall’s publication is part of a continued and controlled push towards systemic gender parity.

GARAGE caught up with the author to muse on her book, its themes, and how they fit within the encompassing context of today’s political and social landscapes.


For GARAGE’s readers, can you discuss some of the core themes and subjects your book touches on and why they are so important?
The subtitle of the book is “Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power”, so the thought-leaders, politicians, and celebrities I interviewed touch on all of these themes—women as leaders not just in politics but across sectors, the obstacles women face in becoming leaders, how women view and use power, constrictive gender roles and the ways in which they can negatively affect women and men, and how absolutely essential it is to achieve parity for women in this country. Women make up half of the population and have very important contributions to make to this country and the world, yet we’re currently not seated in equal numbers at the tables where solutions to the serious problems we face are being made. As Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told me, “Until women are able to achieve their potential, America will not achieve hers.” And I agree with her. Having parity for women in Washington, in the corporate world, and in all sectors of society, would benefit us all.

You released “What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?” back in 2013, but its message continues to be incredibly relevant, particularly now with Hillary Clinton dominating the Democratic Nomination for President. Can you muse on female leaders and their scarceness in the West? (What’s ironic, I feel, is that Western ideologies masquerade as being morally superior when in fact racial and gender inequalities are still huge problems.)
There are many reasons why female leaders are so scarce: the massive amounts of money it takes to run for any public office, the hostile campaign environment that discourages women from running, the negative portrayal of women leaders by the media, and the underlying sexism that still pervades our culture. But in addition to the structural obstacles women face that can hold them back, I heard a lot about an internal glass ceiling. I think it really starts with the fact that patriarchy, gender stereotypes, and sexism are ingrained in boys and girls at an early age in America. Many of the people I interviewed brought up the disturbing fact that girls are discouraged from being leaders at a young age, which is then very hard to overcome or reverse. It means there are fewer young women who see themselves as leaders or see that as a viable path for them to pursue.

And it doesn’t help that there are so few role models for girls and young women to look up to and see what’s possible, because as many people told me, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” We haven’t ever had a woman president, so how can girls and young women see that as a realistic option for themselves?

What do you think it will take to make a woman president?
Well, because of Hillary’s candidacy it’s possible we’ll see a woman president as a result of this current election cycle! But speaking more generally and to the larger issue of what it will take to make women presidential candidates, it took me a lot of interviews and a whole book to try to answer that question. There are many facets to this issue, but here are some of the main takeaways I came away with. First off, we need more women in the political pipeline. The numbers of women currently serving in political office in the United States are still startlingly low: less than 19.4% of Congress, 20% of the Senate, only 5 women out of 60 Governors, and of course we’ve had zero women presidents. So to get more women in the pipeline, we need to encourage women and girls to value their voices and see themselves as leaders and to run for office. We also need to look at transforming the current paradigm of power, because the traditional models of leadership and power are not as appealing to women. And it’s important that we support qualified women candidates that are aligned with our values, whether it’s through voting, offering financial support, or having their backs once they are in office. I also heard a lot in my interviews about the challenges women face balancing work and family, so we could prioritize the implementation of policies like family leave and affordable child care, and take steps to facilitate men being able to share in these roles as well.

America has many talented, female politicians (Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and, of course, Hillary Clinton [to name a few!]). Can you discuss some of their prominent qualities and why they are such great role models for young women today?
Many of the people I interviewed felt that female politicians do bring important and unique leadership qualities to Washington. For example, women are commonly thought of as being good consensus builders, being good listeners, working across the aisle, and approaching power in a different way. And that’s not to say that women are better than men, just that they’re different from men and that means they bring different qualities, strengths, and perspectives to the table, which results in more diversity, a more reflective democracy, and ultimately stronger decisions and better outcomes.

One example that many of the female politicians I interviewed talked about were these bipartisan quarterly dinners that the female senators have been having for years. At these dinners, they get together and don’t talk about issues but connect instead as people first—as wives, as mothers, as sisters and daughters—talking about their lives and their shared interests. And then when they find themselves back in Washington on opposite sides of an issue, they interact with each other as human beings rather than as political adversaries, which makes it easier to work together to find common ground. That is an energy I think we really need in Washington.

And, yes, it is so important that girls and young women see these strong, confident women in politics being successful and utilizing their unique qualities of leadership to make a difference in Washington. Hopefully they’ll be inspired and see that as a possible path for themselves someday—to be a leader, whether in Washington, in the corporate world, or in their communities. That was another point I heard a lot about: this isn’t just about traditional forms of leadership, it is about all of us becoming active, informed citizens and using our voices to vote, to support candidates we believe in, and to advocate for the causes we care about. We don’t all need to run for political office—there are many different ways to exhibit leadership in the world and in our lives.

Who has inspired you most?
There are so many people who inspire me every day, but the one who comes to mind is my daughter Lotus who was the inspiration for me to write the book. It was Lotus who—at 8 years old, back in 2008 after Barack Obama was elected president and we were celebrating the historic milestone of our first African-American president—asked me that simple question: “Why have we never had a woman president?” And that led me on this illuminating journey to find the answers and write this book, in order to help highlight these issues and help support positive change. And truly, it continues to be my two daughters—Lotus, who is now 14 and Jazmin who is 18—who inspire me and fuel my work because they represent all of the incredible young women everywhere who have so much to offer and deserve to grow up in a more equal world where they can be leaders, follow their passions, and feel their capacity to be agents of positive change. We need their vital voices and visions to transform the world!

For GARAGE Nº10 we collaborated with Marvel to create five covers that were styled in the image of five prominent superheroes. The focus was female empowerment. How do you think the representation of women has shifted over the years in popular culture? And how can it be further improved?
I would say the portrayal and coverage of women has improved over the years, but we still have a long way to go. Sexism in the media, as well as the sexualization and objectification of women and girls in television and magazines, is still a big problem and has a real power over our society, a girl’s developing sense of herself, and people’s perceptions of women and girls.

But it is slowly getting better. For example, the sexism in the news coverage of Hillary’s 2008 run for president was pretty bad and pretty blatant, with commentators saying things like, “When Hillary talks, men hear ‘take out the garbage.’” This time around, I feel it has improved to some extent, at least so far. And I think this is due largely in part to social media—commentators just can’t get away with those kinds of remarks anymore without there being immediate and large-scale outcry. And that is exactly what we need: to really hold the media accountable for any sexist comments or negativity toward women in leadership. And we also need to remember that we have power as consumers. We get to decide which shows to watch, which movies to attend, which commentators to listen to, which magazines to read. We should make a conscious effort to choose only those outlets that provide fair and accurate coverage.

To help further improve this, I think it’s important that we have more women in the media and in Hollywood across the board—more women directors, more strong leading TV and movie roles for women, more outlets for women’s stories, more women in news coverage and everywhere else. Similar to Washington and the corporate world, the numbers of women in mainstream media are far too low with women holding only about 5 percent of clout positions. And since media is perhaps the most powerful influence on our culture and our perceptions of women, the more parity we have there, the better the representation of women will be.

You’ve interviewed many public figures. Who has been most inspiring? Were there any statements or bits of advice that were particularly memorable?
Everyone I have interviewed has inspired me in some way, and there are so many memorable statements in each of my interviews that stand out to me. If I had to choose, one of the people who most inspired me, whom I had the honor of interviewing twice, was the incredible Dr. Maya Angelou, who was so big-hearted and wise and always treated me with such warmth. The one statement she repeated both times was the importance of having courage—which she bravely displayed in her own tumultuous life. She called it “the most important of all the virtues” and that without courage “we can’t practice any of the other virtues consistently.” That concept stuck with me because I think it is essential that we develop courage, especially right now where the world needs us to use our voices and stand up for what we believe in, and believe in our power to make a difference and create the life we want to live. The last time I interviewed her she also expressed to me the hopeful perspective that “We are growing up out of the idiocies—racism and sexism and ageism and all those ignorances.” And I hope she was right and that we are on a path toward true equality.

On a personal note, I have also been lucky enough to have many important mentors who have inspired me, including amazing women like Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Pat Mitchell. I am also thankful for the many people who have granted me interviews or supported my work, most recently Beyoncé—I was so grateful and honored that she recommended my book in her interview with GARAGE! I have such enormous admiration for her as an artist and activist and all she has done to promote empowering messages for girls and women.

How has your work with events, public speeches and feminist.com enabled you to inspire positive change within the wider community and to address gender inequality?
I see all my various work—my writing, interviews, putting together events, public speaking, and my work at feminist.com —as interconnected and representing different manifestations of ways I can address issues of gender equality. I love interviewing people because I feel like it is so important that we share our stories, and we can learn so much from connecting with each other’s experiences and life lessons. And I have been really enjoying doing appearances at colleges across the country and speaking to the young women and men who show up at my events, because I feel so invigorated by their optimism and energy, and I always learn so much about the younger generation’s important perspective and what they think and care about. And through feminist.com, which just celebrated its 20 year anniversary, we offer a hub of content and resources, and a convener of events and panels tied into our initiatives on timely topics ranging from “Young Voices”, “Women & Men as Allies”, “Women & Peace”, “Our Inner Lives”, and “Women’s Leadership”. These events are meant to encourage offline connection, foster dialogue and community, and create awareness, ideas and efforts to support change.

My overall hope is to continue to use all of my work to highlight the important interconnecting issues impacting gender equality and to empower and inspire people to use their voices and join in the movement towards positive change.

By Lewis Firth

To contact or to find out more about Marianne, visit her website. To join the conversation visit feminist.com.